One evening last January an unsolicited and unwanted cartoon appeared in my inbox: At the center stands a caricature of a fierce-looking bearded suicide bomber, whose explosive belt is labeled MULTI-CULTURALISM. Six fawning bystanders, three on each side of him, are engaged in trying to explain away the imminent menace. The man at the far left asks, “What if he’s an Islamist?”
Three responses come in rapid succession: “So what? Who are we to judge?” “It’s arrogant to think our culture is superior, isn’t it?” “And it’s bigoted to criticize his religion, isn’t it?”
At the far right a father tells his child, “Don’t stare, son. You might offend him.”
The cartoon’s caption, immediately beneath the word MULTI-CULTURALISM on the suicide vest, reads THE REAL SUICIDE BOMB.
My first reaction to the cartoon was anger. The email came from StopIranNow-RI, which identifies itself as “an interfaith grassroots organization dedicated to the preservation of Western values and America’s alliance with Israel.” Western values? It seems to me that tolerance is an essential Western value; so too is the moral imperative to judge individuals on the basis of their actions rather than to pre-judge them on the basis of some imputed collective identity. Western values demand that we treat every man and woman as a whole person with a unique past, present and future, that we treat every man and woman as a name and not a number.
In his op-ed piece, “Holocaust a disingenuous comparison,” in the Providence Journal on Jan. 27, Howard Brown, coordinator of StopIranNow-RI, writes that “prudence is necessary in bringing into our society a largely anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, misogynistic, homophobic population that favors sharia law to American law.” Is labeling Syrian refugees, who are for the most part helpless and desperate, “anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, misogynistic, homophobic” consistent with the Western values StopIranNow-RI claims to support?
By what standard of truth does Brown justify such an unproven and unprovable generality? Brown identifies himself as “a concerned, Torah-aware member of the Rhode Island Jewish community.” I, too, identify that way. But I take exception to his wholesale condemnation of Syrian refugees, and to the outrageous cartoon his organization saw fit to send to my inbox.
Over the weeks my anger at the cartoon and the so-called values for which it stands has morphed into profound frustration and sadness. Shortly after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, I wrote in my column for the Oct. 3 issue of the Barrington Times: “Since these terrifying events of Tuesday morning, September 11, we are no longer Democrats and Republicans, New Englanders and Southerners and Westerners. We are now living in a time when that which divides us is not nearly so significant as that which brings us together.”
How wrong I was! How utterly naïve! In the decade and a half since I penned those words, the divisions between Democrats and Republicans, the differences among New Englanders, Southerners and Westerners have hardened, widened, deepened – as have the conflicting stances within our own Rhode Island Jewish community
In the eerily prophetic words of William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” a poem written in 1919: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;/...Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,/...The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”
Nevertheless, I refuse to succumb to what David Brooks, in his Feb. 9 column in The New York Times, called “the pornography of pessimism.” Like Brooks, I feel that we Americans “have problems, but they are less serious than those faced by just about any other nation on earth.”
And like Brooks, I sense that “[p]eople are motivated to make wise choices more by hope and opportunity than by fear, cynicism, hatred and despair.”
It seems to me that the cartoon that landed in my inbox is precisely an expression of that toxic mixture of “fear, cynicism, hatred and despair.”
In my post 9/11 column in the Barrington Times, I also wrote: “If out of fear and ignorance we demonize all who appear different from us, then the terrorists have already defeated us.” For me, then, multi-culturalism is not, as the cartoon insists, “the real suicide bomb.” On the contrary, multi-culturalism is a force that enables America to continue to serve as a beacon of hope and opportunity to the tired, the poor, the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at email@example.com.